Football 2000 Preview:
VT Preview: Up and Down the Depth Chart

by Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com, 8/24/00

You've heard it all during the offseason: the Hokies have a great offense, but there are holes and questions on defense and special teams. Well, you're about to hear it again, but I'll try to add something a little different as I go over the team top-to-bottom.

Here's a quick rundown of the two-deep as I know it going into the Georgia Tech game, with comments on some of the positions, and at the bottom, the lowdown on how I see the season going.


The Offense

Quarterback

Michael Vick (#7: 6-1, 214, r-So.)
Dave Meyer (#13, 6-3, 201, r-Sr.)
Grant Noel (#11, 6-1, 215, r-So.)

Okay, you've heard plenty about Vick, and indeed, he is a playmaker. All Michael needs to do this season is cut down on the mistakes and make better decisions, and he will continue to progress nicely as a quarterback. But don't expect perfection. He was stunning against UVa, Rutgers, Temple, and Boston College last year, but he was also inconsistent and sometimes just plain bad against Miami, WVU, and Florida State last year.

One interesting note about Michael is that once he hurt himself against JMU in last season's opener, I donít think he was completely healthy until the Sugar Bowl -- and it showed. Even in breakaway runs against Temple and Pitt, for example, Vick always looked like he was gimping to me, which is scary for Tech's opponents, because he still ran away from people. It should be interesting and fun to watch a hopefully-healthy Vick this season.

Enjoy Michael's great plays, and forgive him the bad ones. And hope he stays healthy.

Tailback

Lee Suggs (#22, 6-0, 207, r-So.)
Andre Kendrick (#4, 5-7, 175, r-Sr.)

Suggs has always had speed, but now, according to Tech insiders, he's got strength, too. The redshirt freshman who weighed 197 going into 1999 and was primarily a speed runner now weighs anywhere from 207 to 214, depending upon whom you listen to, and can run between the tackles, a running style that Tech offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle covets. Suggs is much faster than any Tech running back in recent history and provides the Hokies with the breakaway speed that they have been lacking. If he gets loose, he'll score, something that you couldn't necessarily say about Shyrone Stith, Lamont Pegues, Ken Oxendine, and Dwayne Thomas, his predecessors.

Kendrick weighs much less (175), but brings great experience and fire to the position. He'll run every third set of downs, according to Tech coaches.

Fullback

Jarrett Ferguson (#27, 5-9, 217, r-Jr.)
or
Cullen Hawkins (#42, 6-0, 215, r-Sr.)

Ferguson is a workout and weightlifting machine, and at 5-9, 217, a real load who can block. If he was two inches taller and 20 or 30 pounds heavier, he would be a dream fullback. As-is, he does a great job and is only a junior. Hawkins has loads of experience, more than even Ferguson, and brings a better receiving option to the position.

Receivers

  • Flanker
    Andre Davis (#88, 6-1, 196, r-Jr.)
    Ernest Wilford (#19, 6-5, 211, r-Fr.)
  • Split End
    Emmett Johnson (#18, 6-3, 205, Jr.)
    Ronald Moody (#82, 6-1, 196, r-Fr.)

Andre Davis, just a junior, can now set his sights on breaking Antonio Freeman's record for career touchdown catches, 22. He caught 9 TD's last year, which tied Freeman's single-season record, and with Vick at the helm, the sky is the limit for Davis.

Davis is a known quantity. The unknown quantity is Johnson, who, barring injury, will step up and provide the 25 catches that Ricky Hall had last year for the Hokies. But Hokie fans hope he has more than the 3 TD's that Hall had last year.

Also unknown are Wilford and Moody. Don't count on big numbers from either player, because Tech is a run-oriented team, and the #3 and #4 Hokie receivers rarely post more than 10 catches in a season, if that many.

The Offensive Line

  • Left Tackle
    Anthony Lambo (#59, 6-3, 286, r-Sr.)
    Anthony Davis (#57, 6-4, 321, So.)
  • Left Guard
    Matt Lehr (#69, 6-2, 285, Sr.)
    Joe Marchant (#63, 6-3, 291, r-Sr.)
  • Center
    Steve DeMasi (#61, 6-3, 277, r-Jr.)
    Jake Grove (#64, 6-3, 278, r-Fr.)
  • Right Guard
    Josh Redding (#79, 6-4, 305, r-Sr.)
    Luke Owens (#74, 6-3, 315, r-So.)
  • Right Tackle
    Dave Kadela (#76, 6-6, 287, Sr.)
    Matt Wincek (#58, 6-5, 283, Jr.)

Tech coaches have been saying for years that this group of offensive linemen have the potential to be the best in school history, and this is their year to prove it. One key is for DeMasi to step up and elevate his game. Last year, when he filled in for the injured Keith Short and Tim Schnecker, DeMasi held his own. But now that he is the main man at center, he will be seeking to push the defense back off the line a little more than last year. We know the other players on the line can do it -- DeMasi's improvement is a key to this year's line play.

Another key for the Hokies is to go beyond the first line and get as much experience as possible for Davis, Grove, Owens, and Wincek, all of whom (along with DeMasi) will be back next year and will be asked to key a possible run at a national championship in 2001. That year, if Vick returns, the Hokies will have a legitimate shot at going undefeated, because their out of conference schedule is extremely soft, and they have Syracuse and Miami at home.

Tight Ends

Browning Wynn (#93, 6-3, 230, r-Jr.)
Bob Slowikowski (#87, 6-5, 246, r-Jr.)

The three-headed monster of Wynn, Slowikowski, and Derek Carter give the Hokies incredible depth at this position. The tight end is mostly a blocker in Tech's offensive scheme, but Vick did a good job of using the tight end as a safety valve for big gainers last year. Look for more of the same this year.


The Defense

The Defensive Line

  • Defensive End
    Lamar Cobb (#28, 6-2, 224, r-So.)
    Cols Colas (#99, 6-0, 226, r-Fr.)
  • Defensive Tackle
    Chad Beasley (#94, 6-5, 277, r-Jr.)
    Kevin Lewis (#70, 6-1, 263, Fr.)
  • Defensive Tackle
    David Pugh (#71, 6-3, 271, r-Jr.)
    Dan Wilkinson (#54, 6-1 260, r-Jr.)
  • Defensive End
    Nathaniel Adibi (#83, 6-3, 242, r-Fr.)
    Jim Davis (#95, 6-4, 236, Fr.) or Ron Cook (#51, 6-2, 235, r-Jr.)

There will be no dropoff at defensive tackle, at least not at the starting positions. Tech coaches admitted that last year, if anything, David Pugh was the best defensive tackle on the team and made more plays per minute of playing time than the other tackles.

Pugh and Beasley are a better playmaking duo than Nathaniel Williams and Carl Bradley were. Both can not only hold their ground and clog up the middle of the line, but can actually burst through for sacks, even when double-teamed.

The big concern with this line is that they won't be able to bring consistent pressure from the ends. The last time that happened, in 1997, Hokie opponents were able to pick the Tech defense apart with short passing games that utilized three-step drops (remember the Miami of Ohio and WVU games in particular?).

Adibi will have his moments, but the real key here is for Cobb and Colas to bring their own pressure, and for Pugh and Beasley to both stay healthy. That will help this defense to succeed.

Linebackers

  • Whip
    Nick Sorensen (#14, 6-3, 206, r-Sr.)
    Tee Butler (#30, 6-0, 201, r-Sr.)
  • Backer
    Ben Taylor (#40, 6-2, 226, Jr.)
    Benny Wolfe (#45, 5-10, 203, Sr.)
  • Mike
    Jake Houseright (#41, 6-3, 237, Jr.)
    Brian Welch (#34, 6-0, 240, r-Jr.)

If there are two positions that define the Tech defense, it is the Stud defensive end (Cornell Brown, Corey Moore, and now Adibi), and the Whip linebacker (DeWayne Knight, Brandon Semones, Lorenzo Ferguson, Ben Taylor, and now Sorensen).

Lorenzo Ferguson was perhaps the prototypical Whip linebacker -- quick, fast, and a big hitter -- but a penchant for stealing checks and forging them ended his Tech career early. He would have been a redshirt-senior this year and a vital, crucial cog in this year's Tech defense. As it is, the position fell last year to Ben Taylor, who is not a true Whip, and now belongs to Sorensen.

Sorensen is fast, but is he quick enough to play Whip? Even Nick admits that things happen faster that close to the line of scrimmage, and you have to be quicker and more physical than at his old position, safety.

As for Taylor, he is loads faster than Jamel Smith, the man he replaces at the Backer position. And down in the middle, Jake Houseright, who doesn't have nearly the speed that Sorensen and Taylor have, is plenty big enough (6-3, 237) to jam up the middle. The only thing Houseright needs is an injury-free season and the instinct to break to the right place, a la George Del Ricco. If he doesnít have both, then Brian Welch is a strong fireplug who is raring to go after sitting out a year with a knee injury.

Cornerbacks

  • Field Corner
    Ronyell Whitaker (#2, 5-9, 193, r-So.)
    Garnell Wilds (#17, 6-0, 187, r-Fr.)
  • Boundary Corner
    Larry Austin (#24, 5-9, 184, r-Jr.)
    Billy Hardee (#25, 5-11, 196, r-So.)

Ronyell Whitaker is nothing short of a star in the making. Quick, physical, and always ready to be interviewed, he pushed Loren Johnson in preseason practice two years ago before suffering an injury that sealed his fate as a redshirt.

Now, he is ready, and he stood toe-to-toe with FSU's Peter Warrick in the Sugar Bowl without backing down. If Whitaker continues to develop and displays the same confidence and fighter's mentality as his uncle "Sweat Pea," he will be great and may be the next cornerback to leave Tech early (but Whitaker's only a redshirt-sophomore, so it won't be after this year).

Austin, a junior, has great speed and experience, and he and Whitaker can be a great duo for the next two years. Wilds and Hardee should be capable backups, but they need experience. Let's hope they get it against the Akrons and Temples on this year's schedule.

Safeties

  • Free Safety
    Willie Pile (#35, 6-3, 204, r-So.)
    Billy Hardee (#25, 5-11, 196, r-So.)
  • Rover
    Cory Bird (#16, 5-10, 219, r-Sr.)
    Phillip Summers (#8, 6-0, 205, r-Sr.)

I had all but given up on Willie Pile before the spring of 2000. He has always been a playmaker in scrimmages and JV games, but I didn't think the intelligent Pile had the grit and determination to get down and dirty and play physical.

All indications are that I was wrong. Pile is still a playmaker, but now he is doing the other things that the Tech coaches want as well, and he yanked the starting free safety job away from a host of challengers in the spring and fall. Once the opportunity to start was dangled in front of him, he grabbed it like a rabid dog and wouldn't let go, and now he gets his chance. If Pile's penchant for interceptions continues, you will start seeing plays being made from the safety position that haven't been made since Keion Carpenter took his act to the NFL.

Cory Bird is awesome. Watch for #16. And if he goes down, then Phillip Summers, who is now (after all these years) a senior, will be a great fill-in. Billy Hardee, a multi-talented player whom you can tell the Tech coaches are dying to put in the game, provides good depth and the true Hokie spirit and work ethic.


Special Teams

  • Punter
    Robert Peaslee (#89, 6-0, 188, r-Fr.)
    Vinnie Burns (#38, 5-11, 167, Fr.)
  • Placekicker
    Carter Warley (#49 - FG's and PAT's, 5-11, 184, r-Fr.)
    Jon Mollerup (#97 - kickoffs?, 5-11, 199, r-So.)
  • Punt Returns
    Ronyell Whitaker (#2, 5-9, 193, r-So.)
    Andre Davis (#88, 6-1,196, r-Jr.)
  • Kickoff Returns
    Lee Suggs (#22, 6-0, 207, r-So.)
    Andre Kendrick (#4, 5-7, 175, r-Sr.)

Well, who knows what the heck is going to happen here? The kickers are likely to be spraying the ball all over the place. But I can tell you one thing (and mark it down): if Ronyell Whitaker returns 40 punts this year, like Ricky Hall did last year, he will return at least one for a touchdown. And it won't be a garden variety run-around-the-end and get-behind-the-wall return, either. It will be a heart-stopper like Ricky Hall's return against Miami in 1999.

Suggs's breakaway speed once again gives the Hokies a chance to return kickoffs for touchdowns, not just for good yardage.

The key is, as Coach Beamer says, how well will all these guys play when the lights go on? I have no idea.


Season Outlook

I always want to pick the Hokies to win every game. That's where my heart is, and I can always see it happening. But 1999 was the first time that it actually did.

I think a 10-2 regular season in 2000 is the most likely outcome, with a loss to Miami (see my Big East preview for reasons why), and an upset somewhere else, perhaps against ECU or Georgia Tech.

Any loss that occurs will be the result of mistakes on special teams and/or a rough outing by Tech's young defense. In 1993, the Hokies had a defense that would be great by the end of the year, but earlier in the year, Rutgers and particularly Boston College abused it. It's quite possible, for example, that ECU's David Garrard could get on a roll against the Hokie defense, and things could snowball, and the Pirates could put up big points.

When and if that happens, if Michael Vick and the Tech offense aren't utterly and completely sharp, or if the kicking game gives up a touchdown or two, the Hokies will lose.

And if injuries start to thin out the ranks, on defense in particular, or if Michael Vick goes down with a season-ending injury, all bets are off.

But I see at least a 9-3 season, 5-2 in the Big East, and a Gator Bowl bid. More likely is a 10-2 (6-1) campaign, and in that case, the Big East loss could even come from someone other than the Canes, perhaps sending the Hokies to the BCS.

Further up the scale, going 11-1 or 12-0 and making another BCS appearance is possible, but just not likely with the inexperience on defense and special teams.

Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of HokieCentral.com.  He writes the News and Notes section, game previews, and game reports for HC.

          

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